Foreign policy fissures were on full display among three likely GOP presidential hopefuls at the first unofficial forum of the 2016 cycle.

Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTexas Republicans slam White House over disaster relief request Dem rep: Trump disaster aid request is 'how you let America down again' Moore endorsements disappear from campaign website MORE (Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulCongress must end American support for Saudi war in Yemen Black men get longer prison sentences than white men for same crimes: study Sarah Palin on sexual harassment: 'People know I'm probably packing' so they 'don't mess with me' MORE (Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioCongress faces growing health care crisis in Puerto Rico The Hill's 12:30 Report Colbert mocks Trump for sipping water during speech on Asia trip MORE (Fla.) took the stage late Sunday evening at the California winter meeting of Freedom Partners, a conservative, free-market group aligned with Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch.

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During the 90-minute debate-style panel, moderated by ABC’s Jonathan Karl, there was little difference between the trio on fiscal issues. But on questions of international relations, the senators’ disagreements were stark and often heated — underscoring the foreign policy experience the lawmakers, as opposed to the party’s governors, would bring to the 2016 conversation.

Cruz and Rubio — both the sons of Cuban immigrants who fled the country’s oppressive regime — were steadfast in their opposition to President Obama’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba. But Paul didn’t back away from his support for the steps, saying it would open up opportunities for trade, and even reiterated his opposition to sanctions against Iran.

Cruz, who said his father was “imprisoned and tortured” in the country, said Obama’s deal followed a pattern in which he “consistently alienated and abandoned our friends and appeased our enemies.”

He argued that normalizing relations would “result in billions more for the Castro regime” and make it less likely that Cuba would become a Democratic ally.


Rubio said the Cuba deal was poorly negotiated, many of the dissidents that Castro agreed to free having been either free already or rearrested since.

Paul, meanwhile, argued that the 50-year embargo hasn’t worked and that the U.S. has relations with countless regimes that are similarly guilty of human rights violations. In an ironic twist, it’s Paul who has accused his Republican counterparts of “isolationism” on the issue of Cuba — a charge usually leveled at the Kentucky senator and his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Paul also split from Cruz and Rubio on Iran, where he said increasing sanctions would only lead the country to withdraw further from the international community and make it more likely that an international conflict would erupt.

“The place has been a mess for 1,000 years, you have to think about what the practical results will be of not negotiating,” he said.

Rubio, meanwhile, thundered that current U.S. sanctions were doing nothing to curb Iran’s moves to enrich uranium and that at this pace, “in five years we’re going to build the bomb for them.”

“Nothing should ever be off the table,” including the possibility of military strikes, Rubio said.

Cruz agreed, saying that Iran’s leadership was made up of “radical Islamic nutcases” and that stopping “the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism” required “more stick and less carrot.”

Rubio may have done the most to boost his presidential chances with his performance, even though it’s very early in the presidential testing game.

The Florida senator must decide whether to run for reelection to his Senate seat or take a gamble in a growing White House field. Rubio spent the weekend in Miami meeting with supporters and donors, and according to media reports, has instructed his staff to move forward as if he’s running for president.

Rubio had the most fire throughout the panel and was even the only candidate who wore a suit and tie to the event — Paul wore a jacket with jeans and boots, while Cruz donned a sports coat and cowboy boots.

In making his case, Rubio argued the next Republican nominee needs to be a foreign policy expert with a “global strategic vision” who understands the “seriousness, breadth, and scope of the challenges we face” internationally.

Taking an apparent swipe at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who electrified conservatives over the weekend at the Iowa Freedom Summit, Rubio also said the GOP nominee shouldn’t necessarily come from the party’s stable of conservative governors.

“Taking a trip to some foreign city for two days does not make you Henry Kissinger,” Rubio said. Walker is planning a trip to Israel soon in a move meant to bolster his foreign policy credentials.

Paul seemed exasperated at times by the more hawkish sentiments of the senators seated on his left and right. He asserted that the next Republican presidential candidate should be someone “who believes war is the last resort, not the first.”

“But I’m biased,” he said to laughs.

Paul has recently hired a political adviser who will serve as his campaign manager, should he run. He’s also already hit up New Hampshire for some of the retail-style politicking that most potential candidates won’t engage in until they officially announce their candidacies.

On the economic front, the senators were largely in agreement. Each highlighted income inequality and how the GOP could address those concerns, something also being tackled by two other potential rivals, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Cruz, fresh off a performance that galvanized conservatives at the Iowa Freedom Summit over the weekend, kept his momentum with a populist message to the group of free-market conservatives. He was the one of the three who attended the popular cattle call.

“This country is a divided America,” he said, arguing that President Obama had presided over an economy where “the millionaires and billionaires he loves to demagogue” continue to prosper while the working class “has been hammered.”

Cruz also took a swipe at Romney’s comments that 47 percent of the country is happy to remain on welfare and not pull their weight.

“Republicans are and should be the party of the 47 percent,” he said.